- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. | It was a perfectly normal hit by NFL standards, but when Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers dropped Tom Brady last Thursday, a silence quickly enveloped Gillette Stadium. A slight overreaction, maybe, but the last time the Patriots quarterback was knocked to the turf, the result was a devastating knee injury.

But on Thursday, Brady hopped back up from the play. It was another in a series of firsts - his first practice, his first preseason snap, his first touchdown pass - that have helped Brady put his lost season behind him.

“If I make a poor play, I never have thought, ‘Well, I wonder if it was because of my injury last year,’ ” Brady said. “I think, ‘Well, I’ve got to make improvements.’ Just like every year when things really don’t go your way.”

It has been less than a year since Brady’s 2008 season prematurely ended in Week 1 against the Chiefs. On a sequence replayed countless times throughout New England since, Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard crashed into Brady’s left knee, tearing the quarterback’s ACL and MCL.

Brady had missed all of the 2008 preseason with a right foot injury, so in essence the 2007 NFL MVP has been out of action since the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants. Yet from the moment he returned to Foxborough for the Patriots’ minicamp in June, little had changed for Brady - aside from a slight limp and a clunky brace on his left knee.

“You don’t all of a sudden forget how to play the game,” Brady said. “Brett Favre just came out of retirement, and he starts three days later. It’s just you’ve been doing it a long time, you understand what it takes, you understand the reads.”

Patriots fans already have visions of an offense that rivals its edition from 2007, when Brady threw for 4,806 yards and a record 50 touchdown passes, with 23 caught by Randy Moss, another NFL mark. Moss, Wes Welker and several other components from the team that entered the Super Bowl 18-0 are all still in New England. And the team’s offseason additions included veteran wideouts Joey Galloway and Greg Lewis and running back Fred Taylor.

Brady, however, remains only cautiously optimistic about this offense’s possibilities.

“You always want to try to pick up where you left off,” he said. “The reality is you never do because you add so many different elements to the team - coaches, players, different plays, strategies. This year is certainly no different.

“We’ve made quite a bit of changes personnelwise, and we’re trying to get up to speed. So I think in some ways you regress a little bit in order to build a foundation.”

The first signs of that foundation occurred in the Patriots’ first preseason game, when Brady was 10-for-15 for 100 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to new tight end Chris Baker against the Eagles on Aug. 13. Aside from his one interception on an underthrown ball to Moss, Brady’s timing was crisp and his throws were on point. He was less sharp the following week against Cincinnati, going just 4-for-8 for 57 yards.

“I missed a few throws in this last game and made a few mental errors,” he said. “Hopefully, we try to make some of those improvements and understand that it’s different when you’re out there practicing against your own team day after day after day.”

For running back Laurence Maroney, having Brady back on the field has been a welcome sight.

“He’s got us out of a lot of bad situations and turned them into great ones,” Maroney said. “Every time you step on the field, you want to give him your all because he’s going to give you the same in return.”

The joy of returning to football was noticeable during training camp by both Brady and his teammates. The Patriots celebrated his birthday during camp with a “Happy Birthday” serenade, a cake to the face and an ice water shower. When rookie quarterback Brian Hoyer completed a red-zone pass during drills one morning, forcing the Patriots’ defense into a penalty run, Brady was the most animated player on the field. And in describing this week how much he looked forward to finally playing again, he referred to his teammates as “my buddies.”

“Sometimes guys can achieve so much success that they get on such a high that they forget to look down,” Taylor said. “They forget about the people they pass on the way up. Tom’s very humble. It’s been cool having him as a teammate.”

Brady has been incredibly pleasant this summer in dealing with the deluge of questions about his surgically repaired knee. There’s a sense, however, that he can’t wait for New England’s regular-season opener (Sept. 14 against Buffalo) to arrive - if only to prove that last year’s injury remains in the past.

“I’ve already missed a year. I’ve already paid the price for it,” Brady said. “Moving forward, you’ve just got to try to work as hard as you can to get back to your normal self. And I really feel like I am.”

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